Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader by M.I. Finley (1968)

This blog post started out as simple notes on a short essay by the noted historian of the ancient world, Sir Moses Finley (1912 to 1986) – until I stumbled on the wider context of the essay on the internet, which I then try to summarise.

Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader

The essay ‘Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader’ was published in the early 1960s, then included in a slim Pelican paperback collection, ‘Aspects of Antiquity’, published in 1968, which I picked up sometime in the 1980s.

It is far from being a big definitive essay on the huge subject of slavery in antiquity. Rather, it’s a set of meditations which flow from contemplating just one artifact from the ancient world, a seven-feet-high, finely decorated marble tombstone to this man, Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos.

Tombstone of Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader

The tombstone

This tombstone was found at a town near the border between modern Turkey and Greece. It shows three carved scenes: a typical banquet at the top; a work scene in the middle; and on the bottom, a depiction of 8 slaves, chained together by the neck, being led in single file, accompanied by two women and two children, not chained, preceded by a man who is obviously in charge. Between the top and second row is an inscription in Greek, reading:

Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, freedman of Aulos, slave trader

Apparently what makes this stone rare and unusual is its blunt candour. In the scattered writings we have from the ancient world slave trading was looked down on, sometimes despised, which is odd because the entire economies of ancient Greece and Rome relied on slaves in enormous numbers. But clearly, the writing classes – the people who left opinions for us to read – were ambivalent about it at best.

The American South

Finley compares and contrasts the situation in the ancient world with that in the Southern United States in the nineteenth century. American slave owners were uneasily aware that the rest of the civilised world had abolished slavery and strongly disapproved of them. Hence their increasingly anxious over-compensating justification of the ‘peculiar institution’.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had no external voice of conscience to upbraid them. The reverse. Everywhere they looked they saw all other societies of their time practising slavery.

The racial justification for slavery

The slave society of the Deep South justified its exploitation with widespread propaganda about the intrinsic inferiority of black people. You don’t read far in any text about the American civil war without coming across southern ideologues using the Bible or any other spurious means they can lay hands on to justify the intrinsic superiority of whites and the intrinsic inferiority of blacks. Plenty of authors and politicians claimed that blacks could only find true happiness in the condition of slavery, blacks are children who need the strong hand of a father etc etc.

So a black person in America could never lose the stigma associated with slavery, even if they were free, even if they lived in the north, ran a business, lived a free life, could never be completely free.

The raceless basis of ancient slavery

The situation was drastically different in the ancient world because slavery wasn’t associated with any particular race or ethnicity. Literally anyone could be enslaved – in Spain, in Gaul, in Greece itself, conquering Roman armies enslaved entire cities of white Caucasians.

The crucial point is that there were no specifically slave races or nationalities. Literally anyone and everyone might be enslaved, and which groups predominated at one time or another depended on politics and war. (p.157)

The association of slavery with skin colour was an invention of the Atlantic slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Freed names

Back to Aulos – his first two names, Aulos Kapreilio were those of his master, which he took when he was made free, as per Roman custom. Timotheos was his slave name.

Roman slave names

In the early days of slavery Romans gave their slaves names like Marcipor or Lucipor which was simply a contraction of Marcus puer or Lucius puer, puer being Latin for ‘boy’ (hence the English word ‘puerile’, which has come to mean ‘childishly silly and immature’).

From the year of the twin defeats of Carthage and Corinth, 146 BC, the number of slaves began to steadily increase and so they needed more names.

After 146 the empire became unofficially divided into a Latin-speaking West and a Greek-speaking East, and so slave names sometimes indicate a slave’s origins, east or west.

Side

A city on the south coast of Anatolia, became notorious as a slave market. But maybe the epicentre of the ancient slave trade was the island of Delos

The people of Phrygia in central were notorious for selling their own children into captivity. Many slaves from Scythia (the area to the north of the Black Sea) were bought from their own chieftains, captives in their own wars, or children, or simply human levies, like tax, sold at a profit (p.163).

Slave sales

Given the millions of men, women and children who were slaves it is notable that we have just two visual depictions of an actual slave auction. In both of them a male slave stands on a platform while another man, presumably the buyer, lifts his tunic to admire his strong thighs.

The condition of a slave

is to be brought into a new and alien society violently and traumatically; to be torn not only from his homeland but from all the relationships which provide identity and psychological stability, with family, kin, tribe, village, region, gods, customs, dress – everything.

All this is replaced with just one cardinal relationship – with the slave’s male owner who controls not only every aspect of his physical existence, but his mental horizons, the language he has to use, the new religion he has to practice, rules he has to obey – everything.

Slave sexual exploitation

Complete control over the person of slaves meant the master class had unfettered unlimited sexual access to all slaves, male, female, young or old. As I’ve read the chatty odes of Horace or elegiacs of Tibullus, Propertius or Ovid, I have been disturbed again and again by the casual way they talk about being ‘given’ slaves (of either gender) for sexual purposes.

Slave punishments

The most chilling thing for me, though, has been the casual references, in all the Roman literature I’ve read from Plautus onwards, of the horrific punishments slaves could be subject to, starting with whipping and escalating through torture, having limbs deliberately broken, and so on, up to the ultimate punishment of crucifixion.

Finley returns to the attempts of Americans to justify slavery through the intrinsic inferiority of one race and say not only was it not attempted in the ancient world, it was actively disproved by the case of the Greeks.

Greek revenge

After the brutal conquest of the Greek League in 146 BC, over the next few centuries hundreds of thousands of Greek men, women and children were brought back to Italy as slaves. However, in the long term this caused a kind of cultural revolution. The Gauls or Germans might have been considered ‘barbarians’ (they wore trousers, for God’s sake!) but the Greeks were citizens of the culture which had taught the Romans literature, philosophy and architecture. Hard to maintain the fiction that these people were in any way ‘inferior’. On the contrary many of them, while remaining technically ‘slaves’, rose to become secretaries, assistants or teachers to the master’s children.

Manumission

This leads into another important issues, which is manumission, which is the fancy word for freeing your slaves. The Romans became famous among the cultures of the ancient world for freeing their slaves, as reward for loyal service. It was a disconcertingly simple procedure – the owner declaring the slave free, maybe touching them or gently pushing them away, and a state official such as a consul or a praetor touching the slave with a rod called a vindicta and pronouncing him or her to be free.

The slave’s head was shaved and a pileus was placed upon it. The pileus was a brimless felt cap of undyed wool. Based on what we can see in surviving frescos, sculptures, and coins, the pileus ranged from a short cone to a gumdrop shape. It was the identifying garment of a freedman.

Anyway, we know that the rate of manumission became a real problem in Roman society because the emperor Augustus passed laws trying to limit it:

He established maxima on a sliding scale, according to which no one man was allowed to free more than one hundred slaves in his will. (p.158)

Finley points out a notorious contradiction in Roman attitudes to slavery: which is that noted jurists such as Florentinus clearly stated that slavery as an institution was ‘contrary to nature’, that this idea was shared in some of the literature and incorporated into legal codes – and yet it didn’t make any difference to the actual practice.

He instances the moral philosopher Seneca who freely admitted that a slave is a person with a soul like you and me, but from this premise he draws the conclusion that one should live on friendly terms with one’s slaves, dine with them, converse with them etc – everything except actually free them, which seems beyond the scope of his philosophy (p.164).

War

Because, as Finley points out, war was central to the entire institution of slavery and the slave trade.

The ancient world was one of unceasing warfare, and the accepted rule was that the victor had absolute rights over the person and property of the captives, without distinction between soldiers and civilians. (p.159)

Caesar

went to Gaul an impoverished nobleman and returned a multi-millionaire and this was partly because of the huge number of captives he seized and sold into slavery, taking a commission. After he captured the town of the Atuatuci he sold the entire population of 53,000 into lifelong slavery. After the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC he gave one captive to every one of his legionaries.

War slavers

Enormous numbers like this would slow an army down so by Caesar’s time arrangements were in place to have slave traders accompany the army, or meet them at arranged rendezvous, there to buy the newly captured slaves, take them off the commander’s hands, and do with them as he please, tramp them all the way back to Italy or sell them locally.

Maybe the procession on Timotheos’s tombstone depicts such a merchant marching off some of his new merchandise.

Pirates

From a business point of view the problem was the extreme unpredictability of war. Hence the inexorable rise from 150 or so onwards of piracy in the Mediterranean. This wasn’t a case of a few swashbuckling privateers but ‘a complex business network of pirates, kidnappers and slave dealers’, with its headquarters at Side and its main emporium on the Greek island of Delos. Finley quotes the figure I’ve read elsewhere that the docks and warehouses of Delos were extended so that at its peak it turned over as many as 10,000 slaves a day.

(On the subject of scale, Finley says that as early as the 4th century BC the number of slaves working in Athens’s silver mines was probably as high as 30,000.)

Latifundia

The rise and rise of slavery went hand in hand with a crucial socio-economic development in mainland Italy. This was the eradication of the small family farm – the kind of place which Virgil and Horace idolised as the cradle of morality and right living – and its replacement by vast estates or latifundia owned by enormously rich absentee landlords and worked by slave gangs often working in chains.

The servile wars

The scale of the exploitation and the resentment it bred led to the three major slave revolts which escalated so far as to be called ‘wars’, the so-called Servile Wars:

  • First Servile War (135 to 132 BC) in Sicily, led by Eunus, a former slave claiming to be a prophet, and Cleon from Cilicia
  • Second Servile War (104 to 100 BC) in Sicily, led by Athenion and Tryphon
  • Third Servile War (73 to 71 BC) on mainland Italy, led by Spartacus

Training

Specialist skills were in great demand. If a slave could play music, recite poetry, take dictation or any number of other skills then he or she might secure a relatively comfortable lifestyle. Alternatively, slaves could be trained, specially if started young.

Many slaves became masters of crafts and trades; the chain-ganged brute labour of the countryside was matched by highly skilled slaves in more urban settings who worked in potteries or textile mills, on temples and other public works, sometimes performing artistic and delicate work.

The sheer number of slaves present at every level of Roman society, participating in a huge range of activities, suggests the ‘condition’ or psychology of slavery must have been hugely varied, as varied, maybe, as the number of individual slaves.

The end of ancient slavery

Slavery ended not because of any abolitionist movement but because of profound socio-economic changes in the Roman Empire. These slow economic transformations replaced both the ‘chattel slave’ and the free peasant of Virgil and Horace’s dreams, with a new social class, a new type of ‘bondsman’ – the colonus, the adscripticius, who was himself to evolve into the serf.

For the most part. But slavery didn’t disappear from Europe, not even from the Empire. Finley tells us that when the sixth-century emperor Justinian drew up a codification of all existing laws, the issues thrown up by slavery took up more space than any other topic.

The essay in the context of Finley’s career

Online you can read the first page of an essay about Finley and slavery by the American academic, Arnaldo Momigliano. This tells us that Finley had a lifelong interest in the question of slavery in the ancient world and that the present essay repeats some themes and ideas already discussed in his 1958 essay, ‘Was Greek civilisation based on slave labour?’ (itself included in a 1960 collection, ‘Slavery and Classical Antiquity’) and takes its place alongside other papers on the subject gathered in the 1981 volume, ‘Economy and Society in Ancient Greece’.

Apparently, Finley’s ideas about slavery were most fully expressed in the book-length study, ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’, published in 1980 (so when he was 68). If you go looking for it on Amazon, you find the latest imprint of the book and discover that it was republished in 1998 with new material by an academic named Brent Shaw.

This volume, ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’, isn’t a history of slavery as such, it’s an account of the interpretations succeeding ages have made of slavery in the ancient world, according to each era’s ideologies and principles. In what follows I’m indebted to the excellent review of ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’ on Amazon by Richard Mathisen. To be clear, I’m putting Mathisen’s words in italics.

Richard Mathisen’s summary of ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’

For Finley, there have been only five genuine slave societies, two ancient (Greece and Rome), and three modern (the Caribbean, Brazil, and the American South).

Historians of ancient societies have always been affected by ideological bias. Classical historians admired Greek and Roman civilisations so they downplayed the ugly aspects of slavery. Christian historians tried to claim that Christianity ended slavery, but it didn’t. Marxist historians wanted to interpret ancient slavery through their lens of class war while anti-Marxist historians took the opposite view.

While ancient slavery had no racial component, modern historians are influenced by racial concerns so that every “new interpretation of slavery has professed to be more anti-racist than the one it replaces.”

Finley’s aim is to trace the distorting effect of each of these ideologies on the history of slavery. Finley explains the emergence of ancient slave societies, which requires three conditions: private ownership of land, commodified systems of production, and a shortage of labour. He considers societal attitudes toward the humanity of slaves and traces the end of slavery as it transitioned into feudalism.

Finley carefully defines slavery, because many examples of forced labour have existed, including Egyptian pyramids, Assyrian and Babylonian empires, Spartan helots, feudal serfs, and indentured servants, but they were not slaves. Indeed, he notes that the most unusual labour system in history is modern free wage labour, with individuals free to move.

This leads to Finley’s real interest. What factors led to ancient slavery? When did it start, when did it end, and why? What aspects of ancient society were part of slavery’s support system? What were the ideological presuppositions of the Greeks and Romans? Why was the legitimacy of slavery never questioned in ancient times, even during slave revolts? Why did slavery exist only in certain areas of Rome, such as Italy and Sicily? Could slavery ever come back again in the modern world, if the necessary conditions seemed to demand it?

When re-issuing Finley’s book, Brent Shaw added a 1981 response by Finley to his critics and a 1979 essay on “Slavery and the Historians.” Shaw himself wrote a 76-page essay updating the slavery debate since 1980.

The vast historiography of a complex subject

All this builds up to quite a complex picture which can be summarised as:

  • during his career Finley wrote a number of essays about slavery in the ancient world
  • his main statement on the subject is a book which describes the changing interpretations of ancient slavery made by the leading ideologies of different eras
  • critics criticised this book
  • Finley wrote an essay addressing these criticisms
  • Brent Shaw added a long essay updating the debate since 1980 (presumably up till 1998, when this new edition was published)

But quite obviously a lot of this is very old. When I skimmed through the passages of ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’ available on Amazon, I caught references to the Soviet Union. The idea of describing an aspect of the ancient world as it has been interpreted, reinterpreted and misinterpreted by the leading ideologies of successive ages sounds really interesting, but…1980. Surely I ought to be reading something far more up to date.

And then, when I saw that the Arnaldo Momigliano essay about Finley had been published in a periodical titled ‘Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies’, my heart sank. Every month or so since the late 1970s this journal has been publishing articles about slavery. By now there must be a mountain of content – and I bet there are other journals on the subject, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of academic papers and tens of thousands of books, and hundreds of conferences which must have been held on the subject. How long would it take to read all the relevant studies, paper and books on the subject? A year? Three years? I’d like to learn and understand more but do I have the time required? Does anyone have the time?


Credit

‘Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader’ was included in a collection of essays by M.I. Finley titled ‘Aspects of Antiquity’, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Roman reviews

Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

Reviews about Marx and communism

Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in Czechoslovakia

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

%d bloggers like this: